Pop Up Grocer Aims to Revolutionize the Way We Shop

Founder Emily Schildt wants to empower small business food brands.

pop up grocery founder Emily Schildt
Design by Chineme Elobuike for Thrillist
Design by Chineme Elobuike for Thrillist

While browsing the aisles of your local grocery store, most consumers have zero idea about the hoops it takes for products to wind up on the shelves. Essentially, a lot of brands have to pay grocery stores to even be considered.

That idea is what inspired Emily Schildt to start Pop Up Grocer. The former publicist created the roving grocery store company in 2019 when she realized how tough it is for small consumer packaged goods (CPG) brands to get a fair shot at retail.

“A light bulb went off in my head and I was like, ‘I should create the ideal retail environment in which products launch and have the visibility they deserve,’” Schildt says. “I started to gain some insight and understanding of how retail works and just how challenging it was for these brands to very simply get their product on the shelf.”

Then, if brands are able to get on the shelves, they struggle with visibility. Before brands can even get to the point where they can afford to be on the shelves of a grocery store, there are also the costs associated with designing sleek packaging.

What Pop Up Grocer does is attempt to make the retail experience more equitable for smaller brands, like Agua Bonita, Fishwife, and Magic Spoon, for example. Schildt doesn’t work with distributors, so she’s able to deal directly with brands that haven’t reached a certain financial standing yet. She looks specifically for new brand launches, nutritious products, and diverse teams.

Emily Schildt at a Pop Up Grocer
Emily Schildt at a Pop Up Grocer. | Photo by Aaron Bernstein

“We have a strong focus on identifying and highlighting brands with founders who are women, BIPOC, LGBTQ+, or just generally under-resourced and underrepresented,” she says. “So that includes brands that are self-funded or bootstrapped as well.”

In addition to targeting small brands, Schildt has started the Pop Up Grocer Fund, which gives a combination of cash and creative services to an upstart brand. This was driven in part by the fact that Schildt learned how many brands fly under the radar because they don’t have the resources for packaging.

When it comes to setting up the traveling store, Schildt seeks out cities that brands want to gain exposure in. Then, they narrow down which neighborhood they want to pop-up in (there’s usually a lot of foot traffic). Their most recent pop-up location was in Wicker Park in Chicago, but they’ve popped up in Brooklyn, Venice in Los Angeles, and Downtown Austin.

Shopping at a PUG is meant to be a fun and joyful experience. The spaces are intimate at around 1,000 square feet with about 400 products (as opposed to a traditional grocery store which is about 40,000 square feet and 40,000 products). Splashy colors are woven into the design and cutesy signage (i.e. breakfast-ish and balls, bars, and bits) provides an easy approach to browsing. “It’s grocery store shopping made enjoyable, basically,” she says. There are also home, pet, and body products available at the stores.

Though the company was founded before the pandemic, most of its pop-ups have happened during it. “We were super lucky that people were more excited than ever to be buying groceries, and I think more excited than ever to be able to go safely into a physical space,” Schildt explains.

Pop Up Grocer in Williamsburg
Photo by Aaron Bernstein

While many people have switched over to online shopping for groceries, especially pantry staples, PUG allows shoppers to buy items that they may not necessarily be able to order online (or, in some cases, buying them in person helps them avoid a huge shipping fee) while having an engaging shopping experience.

“We have probably four or five people on the floor,” she says. “So it was really nice to be able to, even if you’re masked, be able to converse with strangers once again—in a setting where you’re learning new things and you’re curious.”

As we head into the holidays, supporting these small brands is something that should be at the top of our minds. “They’re the ones that are really driving innovation,” Schildt says. Innovations that she is currently seeing in the space include better-for-you candy bars and gummies as well as interesting ready-to-drink, non-alcoholic beverages.

Looking ahead, Schildt is excited about PUG’s first permanent location. Set to open this spring in downtown Manhattan, the store will become a reliable destination for people to purchase these otherwise hard-to-buy treats. The permanent location will be more than a grocery store, though, as it will also have space for talks, tastings, and demos as well as a cafe component. There will also be an online holiday shop launching in November and a pop-up headed to Miami in January. If you can’t make it in person, a subscription box is available online.

For Schildt, all of this expansion is a dream realized, to be able to provide joy to customers and can’t-miss opportunities to brands. “They’re just so happy to be able to have an efficient path to retail,” she says. “Just to very simply be able to get their products in people’s hands and feel what I feel about my store—that very tactile, rewarding exchange.”

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Lia Picard is an Atlanta-based journalist writing about food, travel, and a variety of other topics. Her work appears in The New York Times, The Washington Post, Wine Enthusiast, and CNN Travel.